Guest Post: The Obiang Trial Suggests Innovative Approaches To Fighting International Corruption

GAB is pleased to welcome back Frederick Davis, a lawyer in the Paris office of Debevoise & Plimpton, who contributes the following guest post:

Over the past two months, the French Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris (the principal trial court) heard evidence in the case against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue (known as Teodorin), on charges of corruption and money laundering, among other allegations. Teodorin is the son of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the long-time – and notoriously corrupt – President of Equatorial Guinea, a resource-rich country that also has some of the most widespread poverty in the world. Yet Teodorin, who is currently Vice President , owns vast real estate in Paris, a private jet, a yacht, and a fleet of vintage and modern automobiles, among his other known assets. This case has been discussed extensively on this blog (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but it’s useful to recap how the case came to trial in the first place:

The case against Teodorin was primarily the result of diligent efforts by NGOs, including the French anticorruption group Sherpa and the French chapter of Transparency International (TI). In 2007, Sherpa and others filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor in Paris alleging that the ruling families of Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Burkina Faso and the Republic of the Congo held assets in France that were not the fruits of their official salaries. After a brief investigation, the Public Prosecutor dismissed the claims. Several of the NGOs, joined in some instances by citizens of the countries in question, then used a French procedure known as constitution de partie civile to cause a criminal investigation by an investigating magistrate (juge d’instruction). This effort was opposed by the Public Prosecutor. A Court of Appeals initially upheld the prosecutor’s position and dismissed TI’s intervention, but in an important 2010 ruling, the French Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court) ruled that TI was a proper partie civile authorized to instigate the criminal investigation. Ultimately Teodorin was bound over for trial, now with the support of the Public Prosecutor (as well as the continued active participation of TI and other NGOs). A decision is expected in October.

The procedures that brought Obiang to trial are interesting because they highlight four important differences between French and US criminal procedures, and more generally illustrate several legal deficiencies, in countries like the United States, that often hinder the worldwide fight against transnational corruption: Continue reading

Coming Along for the Ride: Regional Human Rights Courts Should Demand Government Measures to Affirmatively Address Corruption

In an earlier post, I discussed an order by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights demanding that Brazil investigate and report on prison guards’ corruption. Mandating that a country review its own corruption seems to be a new step for an international judicial body. The approach suggests a way to more closely integrate corruption-related concerns into international human rights work: including corruption-specific mandates within broader holdings. Other international adjudicative bodies, particularly regional human rights courts, should follow this model.

The idea of directly adjudicating corruption through an international court has been floated but also strongly opposed. Some corruption commentators advocate making grand corruption a crime against humanity that could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). As discussed on this blog, Judge Mark Wolf has proposed an independent international anticorruption court, an idea that met with some tempered support and a good deal of opposition (see here, here, and Matthew’s concerns here). I agree that grand corruption does not belong in the ICC or an independent court. To reject grand corruption as a stand-alone offense to be prosecuted in international criminal tribunals is not, however, to reject that corruption should be addressed by international criminal tribunals where it is relevant. Existing bodies like regional human rights courts—the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), and the much newer African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as other, even younger human rights bodies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East—should explicitly address corruption-related issues within the context of the large volume of human rights adjudication already taking place. As other commentators have already discussed, these regional human rights courts can fold corruption into their respective mandates and generate meaningful corruption-related law (see here, here, and here). Indeed, regional human rights bodies are already well-placed to highlight corruption where it emerges and to respond appropriately to both the existing situation and future concerns:

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Dear International Anticorruption Court Advocates: It’s Time to Answer Your Critics

Over the last year or so, proposals for an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC), modeled on (but distinct from) the International Criminal Court (ICC), have attracted an increasing amount of attention in the anticorruption community and beyond. This attention is due in part to the understandable frustration with the continued impunity of many kleptocrats, and in part to the instinctive attraction (in some quarters) to international judicial solutions to political problems. It’s also the result of the dogged and determined advocacy of IACC proponents. As some readers of this blog probably know, I’m skeptical. But I nonetheless admire the IACC advocates for their willingness to think creatively and to spark an important debate.

That admiration, however, is waning, and the reason is simple: For all their talk about wanting to start a conversation, IACC advocates have shown surprisingly little interest in engaging, in any serious way, with substantive objections to the proposal. It’s now over 18 months since the campaign for an IACC began. Very early on, sympathetic but skeptical critics—including me, as well as several others (see here and here)—raised a number of serious questions and concerns. These concerns are not minor details about implementation—they go to the heart of the proposal, and if the criticisms are on the mark, then the whole enterprise is misguided. Now, maybe the criticisms are not well-founded; maybe there are good answers to all of them. Yet so far IACC advocates have not really provided those answers. (To be fair, the main pro-IACC webpage includes an FAQ section that purports to offer some preliminary responses, but to call those responses “thin” would be generous.) When pressed, IACC advocates have a tendency to respond with one or both of the following rejoinders: (1) “Corruption is really bad—don’t you want to stop it?”; (2) “The critics have raised a number of concerns that will need to be addressed when we work out the details of the proposal.” But nobody in this debate seriously disputes the harms of corruption, and the criticisms that have been raised are not about minor details. At this point, if IACC advocates are serious, they need to offer more than that, and what’s to be found on the brief FAQ page.

Just to recap the main objections: Continue reading

An International Success, Applied in the US: The OECD Law Enforcement Group as a Model for US State Prosecutors

In the United States, the federal government plays a lead role in prosecuting corruption at the state and local level–and many anticorruption advocates and scholars (both in the US and internationally) credit this federalization of anticorruption enforcement with getting rampant local corruption under control. Indeed, the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section was founded in 1976 precisely because it was thought that federal enforcement efforts were required to fill the vacuum created by the inability or unwillingness of state and local law enforcement authorities to bring cases against government officials in their own communities.

Leaving aside for the moment the substantial federalism and sovereignty concerns that have been leveled against this approach, it seems that the federalization of state and local corruption prosecutions worked, and contributed to a significant reduction in corruption across the United States. For this reason, anticorruption advocates frequently suggest that the US experience with federal enforcement should serve as a model for the international community. For example, Judge Mark Wolf’s proposal for an International Anticorruption Court explicitly draws on the US approach, and was likely influenced by Judge Wolf’s personal experience as a federal prosecutor of state and local officials.

I would like to propose the reverse: The United States should take a page out of the international enforcement playbook to improve state-level prosecution of state and local corruption, by implementing something like the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention’s closed-door meetings of law enforcement officials, but for US state-level prosecutors. Here’s why: Continue reading

“Combating Grand Corruption: Is International Law the Answer”: The Debate Continues at Harvard Law School

As readers of this blog know, U.S. Federal District Judge Mark Wolf has been vigorously advocating for the creation of a new International Anticorruption Court (IACC), modeled on the International Criminal Court (ICC), that would have jurisdiction over grand corruption committed by senior national leaders and their associates. His proposal has attracted a great deal of attention, including a critique that I posted a little while back. The proposal also relates to more general questions about the appropriate role for international law and institutions in fighting grand corruption.

Last week, the Harvard Law and International Development Society (LIDS) organized a fantastic symposium on “Combating Grand Corruption: Is International Law the Answer” to tackle some of these issues. Judge Wolf and Luis Moreno Ocampo, who served as the first prosecutor at the ICC, gave opening and closing remarks.

Fortunately the conference was recorded; here are the links to Part One and Part Two. The whole thing is worth watching, but for those of you who are particularly interested in seeing Judge Wolf and I square off in person, his opening remarks in support of the IACC proposal can be found from 4:26-24:43 of Part One, my critique is at Part One, 1:32:20-1:45:52, and his closing remarks (which include but are not limited to a rebuttal of my critique) are at Part Two, 1:11:14-1:30:12.

Other highlights include:

  • Mr. Moreno Ocampo’s opening and closing remarks (Part One, 25:03-42:37 and Part Two, 1:06:18-1:11:06)
  • Akaash Maharaj, Executive Director of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, on the range of possible international legal responses to grand corruption (Part One, 1:17:00-1:32:07)
  • My Harvard Law School colleague Alex Whiting, former Prosecutions Coordinator at the ICC, on what we can learn from the ICC experience for the proposed IACC (Part One, 1:46:00-1:58-40)
  • Charles Duross, former head of the FCPA Unit at the U.S. Department of Justice, on how the FCPA helps combat grand corruption and what we could do to make it more effective in doing so (Part Two, 3:33-18:17)
  • GAB’s very own Rick Messick on more practical, achievable measures that could make a difference in reducing grand corruption (Part Two, 18:35-29:39)
  • Robert Leventhal, Director of Anticorruption Programs and Governance Initiatives at the U.S. State Department, on measures that the U.S. government is undertaking that make it harder than ever to be a kleptocrat (Part Two, 29:47-42:40)

Better Training for Anticorruption Investigators: Another Dull, Boring, Humdrum, Modest, Unimaginative Proposal to Combat Corruption?

U.S. Federal Judge Mark Wolf’s proposal to create an international court for corruption crimes was recently the subject of a briefing organized by a commission of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The briefing was the latest example of the attention Judge Wolf’s recommendation for fighting corruption has garnered, attention that has included an appearance on public television where he extolled the merits of his proposal and an interview in a serious policy journal where he expanded on his idea for the court.

Given Matthew’s devastating critique of the court proposal, the attention the judge’s idea continues to attract is surprising to say the least.  What it no doubt reflects is the publicity value of an idea that, at least on its face, appears to be an innovative, imaginative, and “outside the box” way to fight corruption.  Given this media bias, it would do no good to point to further flaws in the judge’s idea (indeed one might write that it would be blogging a dead horse to do so).  What I intend here instead is to protest the media bias for headline grabbing ideas to combat corruption by advancing one that is dull, boring, humdrum, modest, and unimaginative.  The proposal is thus diametrically different in PR value from the judge’s.  It also differs in two substantive ways: it is 1) realistic and 2) will help reduce corruption if followed.

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Yet Another Misguided Proposal to Solve Corruption with an International Convention

Entrenched corruption is a frustrating problem, so it’s tempting to invent a new international regime that can take bold action against it without relying on or being encumbered by corrupt or incompetent domestic law enforcement. An article published last week in Foreign Affairs by Alexander Lebedev and Vladislav Inozemtsev, succumbs to that temptation by proposing a “universal anticorruption convention” as a solution to grand, systemic corruption (as distinct from low-level bribery). In broad terms, Lebedev and Vladislav envision a convention that would “clearly define the crime of corruption, codify the principles of good governance,” and “establish a supranational governing body, dedicated investigative and police forces, and a specialized court,” with signatories agreeing to “allow[] international investigators to act freely on [their] territory, and permit[] international prosecution of [their] citizens for corruption crimes.”

The article is short on details about these proposed institutions; the bulk of the article is devoted instead to the proposed convention’s enforcement mechanism. And there the proposal is quite radical: Signatories would be required to “radically curb their financial ties” with non-members, to “identify all assets controlled on their territories by the subjects of nonmember states (both individuals and companies)”–regardless of whether the assets are the proceeds of corruption–and, by an agreed deadline, to “monetize[e] and repatriate[e]” all of these assets. Under the convention, citizens of non-member states could not “open[] accounts in member countries’ banks, establish[] companies on their territories, [or] acquir[e] local real estate.” And member states would also be required to bar immigration from non-member states (at least of “young, independent people”), because the “freedom to leave” a corrupt state reduces the pressure to change from within.

I agree with Lebedev and Inozemtsev that grand corruption is a serious problem, and I commend them on their willingness to explore radical new solutions. But their proposal is absurd. I can’t imagine any state signing on to it, and I don’t think any state should. Their proposal would not only be ineffective. Its implementation would be catastrophic.  Continue reading